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Literary Internationalism: Prof. Sibel Erol on Tezer Özlü


Tezer Özlü

Anticipating the debut English-language publication of Tezer Özlü's novel, Cold Nights of Childhood, by Serpent's Tail in the UK, Fictive Mag interviewed Sibel Erol, Professor of Turkish and Turkish Literature at New York University. Özlü's fiction, narratives and letters develop a course of modernism that brought writing in Turkish to the forefront of internationalism in literature, as she wrote and lived for intellectual and physical liberation beyond the confines of her national origins.

How do we frame an appreciation for Tezer Özlü in literature?


Tezer Özlü can be seen as a transitional voice between the Turkish writers of the 1950s generation who are dominantly men, and of the women writers of the late 1970s and 80s who outnumber men during this period.


Tezer Özlü was born in 1943. Her older brother Demir Özlü (1935-) was part of the 1950s literary scene. Tezer and her older sister Sezer (1942-) who both studied at St. George’s Austrian High School grew up around the literary group that their brother was part of, made up of all kinds of writers and artists who seemed to live a collective bohemian life, hanging out at the Baylan Bakery or at literary matinees during the afternoons and at the various Tünel meyhanes at night.


Jale Özata Dirlikyapan’s book Kabuğunu Kıran Hikaye (The Short Story that Broke Its Mold) describes the dominant literary themes of this period as loneliness, darkness, alienation, nausea and suicide. This generation of writers were moving away from social realism of the earlier period which was instrumental in creating the idea of the nation and progress. Writers of the 1950s generation retained a social consciousness and class awareness, but they thought capturing and conveying the reality of an inner life was much more important, and central to their mission of depicting the “individual.”


They were much influenced by both Marxism and existentialism, which, as Özata Dirlikyapan observes, they encountered filtered through literature. The writers of this period played with narrative time frames, dispensed with mimetic realism to capture an inner life through images and metaphors. As Leyla Erbil explains, they also focused on how they used language, wrote in short and deceptively simple sentences whose illusiveness was ironically increased with a new kind of language that included some made-up words they invented.


The women writers writing in the 1970s and 80s like Nezihe Meriç, Leyla Erbil, Pınar Kür, Sevgi Soysal, Tomris Uyar, Füruzan, Adalet Ağaoglu, among others, are a lot more socially focused, and consequently, more directly examine the lives of women of different classes, probing into the reasons of the inequality, obstruction, plain cruelty they experience while also trying to offer systemic as well as individual solutions. They write in formalistically more distinctly narrative forms while also trying to capture the individuality and inner lives of their characters through epiphanies and images, but they always foreground the “moment” within a larger social and historical time with its political realities of class difference, repression, oppression and injustice.


Tezer Özlü is not very much interested in the plight of other women although she is keenly aware that she’s a woman: that she’s writing as a woman from a woman’s consciousness and that a great deal of the injustice, setbacks and mistreatment she experienced was because she was a woman. In her essay entitled “Our Women” she writes that the problems of Turkish women can’t be extricated from other social problems plaguing society, but the main impediment to the improvement of their situation is their misfortune to belong to a society lacking freedom of thought. She, on the other hand, as she describes in her essay “I write to make sense of life and death,” has freedom of thought, and awareness of self she gained through literature, which she argues, gives her control and autonomy over her life.

Her writing is generally autobiographical. The reason I say she’s a bridge between the writers of the 1950s-1960s and those of 1970s-80s is that she’s much more individualistic in her search for fulfillment and meaning than the other women writers I mentioned. Her writing is more lyrical and internally coded, lacking the formalistic shape and contours of the forms that other women authors are writing and experimenting in. In the opening of the essay I mentioned above “I write to make sense of life and death” she declares that she’s going to be “individualistic” because “I’m an individualist who values the creation of an individual as the highest accomplishment of a society.”


It’s very interesting that her novel “Cold Nights of Childhood” covers the same internal terrain as her brother Demir Özlü’s novel “The Youthful Years of a Petit-Bourgeois,” but his is a starkly masculine narrative, and hers is a feminine and feminist one. It’s striking she uses similar light and darkness metaphors and places a similar kind of weight on sexuality both literally and as a metaphor of life -fulfillment. This is quite a risky undertaking for a woman writer, one which may delegitimize everything else she’s saying by drawing focus to a sensationalizable point. This fear is the reason why the way sex is dealt with is a lot more through imagery in Füruzan or Nezihe Meriç’s writing for example, and a lot more cut off from the senses and is more intellectual in Adalet Ağaoğlu’s treatment.


I tried to answer your question of how we may frame our appreciation of Tezer Özlü’s works. This is the framework, but let me also say why we should take note and appreciate her writing:

Her writing in general, Cold Nights of Childhood in particular is noteworthy for its truthfulness, boldness and honesty. She tells the story of the artist as a young woman, but this is not a story of a young girl finally finding freedom and vocation. She already gives herself the freedom of making her own choices quite early in life. Where she found the reserves of strength required for this kind of self-confidence- in that time period by a daughter of two teachers who spent the first ten years of her life in provincial towns where her parents were posted- is difficult to fathom. She flaunts all the norms of middle-class respectability and success.


She dropped out of high school during the last semester of high school although she was a very good student. She hitchhiked through Europe during the summer before that decision. She also similarly is in control of her own sexuality from the beginning. She’s already sexuality active in high school. Her honesty about her own sexuality and positive depiction of female sexuality are similarly noteworthy.


Another issue she’s honest about is her difficulties in mental health. She was eventually diagnosed as bipolar. She endured many stays in various hospitals and many instances of electro-shock therapy. She documents episodes of harassment and abuse of patients by doctors and hospitals staff, and finally says what cured her in the end was the fear of being sent back to yet another hospital to face more cruelty. Her honest treatment of sexuality and mental health distinguishes her from her contemporaries. It’s important these same issues are relevant in our day not only in Turkey, but all over the world, which makes her works relatable and relevant to us now.


One comparison I thought of also was with the memoir Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, made into the film, for its depiction of mental illness as distinct from, while concurrent with, greater political turmoil.

The Psych ward as a place of abuse, submission and control that needs to be exposed is not a novel social trope. Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish talks about how what is determined as “normal” and what is defined as mental sickness is an issue of power. Who gets to decide who’s mad? Foucault’s answer is “those who have power to do so.” We similarly can see this in the play and film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


The added angle in Girl, Interrupted is that it’s a story of young girls; it’s a specific instance of showing control and victimization of women that requires questioning and correction. This film, in questioning the treatment of young women, is not denying the reality and negative impact of mental health problems on their lives. It does suggest though similar treatment of them outside might cause and exacerbate some of the problems. It’s possible in literary analysis to go to the other extreme and not even consider the reality of problems, seeing diagnoses as solely metaphors of repressing and controlling female independence- although that was also a real phenomenon, especially in rampant diagnoses of hysteria in the 19th century and the way its supposed cause of a “wandering womb” became the name of the diagnosis.

Tezer Özlü describes the ways patients are victimized, how they are sexually and physically abused in psych wards. She exposes these as social ills. When she is sick, she also loses her independence; she’s committed to the hospital many times by her family. In exposing the powerlessness of the patient in the psych ward, we can say her novel is similar to Girl, Interrupted. Before getting her first electro -shock therapy, she cries out, “I’m dying. Carry on with the revolutionary struggle without me.” Leyla Erbil sees in this scream, a confession in which Tezer Özlü’s guilty subconscious is revealing she’s not as politically engaged as she should be. But I rather think that Tezer Özlü is saying the way she’s been living her life uncowed by others is a political struggle for freedom and independence.


For real life comparisons of her experience of suffering breakdowns and writing about them honestly- without fear of being labelled or discredited, I will point to two near contemporaries who did not make it beyond their 30s: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) and Forough Farookhzad (1934-1967). Perhaps, Tezer Özlü was stronger than both because she was not as alone as these women, and had lifelong nurturing friendships and a very supportive older sister.


Have you had many students studying Tezer Özlü?


No, I did not. She was included in a reading class on the authors of the 1950s to the 70s which I offered in 2019. I usually ask my students what they want to study and draw our reading list together with them. Tezer Özlü was the choice of one student. This was the first time I taught her. I teach her contemporaries Adalet Ağaoğlu and Sevgi Soysal more regularly under the rubric of women writers.

It was productive in that class to study Tezer Özlü in her relationship to the 1950s generation, and collaborations between artists working in different media. A lot of her creative relationships were fostered in that milieu, including her friendship with the novelist, artist and critic Ferit Edgü. Tezer Özlü’s second husband Erden Kıral directed the screenplay that Edgü wrote with Onat Kutlar: Hakkâri'de Bir Mevsim [A Season in Hakkâri]. She was the sole breadwinner of the family during the time her husband worked on the film. This alone breaks so much with middle class conventions of the time. The film won the Silver Bear in 1983 in Berlin International Film Festival and is now a classic, which validates her artistic instincts.


How might “Cold Nights of Childhood”, and Tezer Özlü be specially significant for readers considering its first appearance in English translation?

I’ve already spelled out what’s specifically noteworthy in Tezer Özlü’s works in my answer to your first question. Some works of the writers Tezer Özlü’s name is cited with as some kind of a contrast to, like Sevgi Sosyal and Adalet Ağaoğlu are available in English. Theirs are more overtly politically and formally more structured novels. Tezer Özlü’s great friend Leyla Erbil will soon be available with the translation of two of her novels into English. She’s a lot more political than the other novelists I named. Her soon to be translated first novel A Strange Woman includes a section on the assassination of the first Turkish delegate of the Communist party, Mustafa Suphi, which she updated with each new edition of her novel. Her writing style, though, is in a stream of consciousness mode and sometimes verges on the surreal.


Tezer Özlü represents a different niche of women’s writing from Turkey because of her emphasis on the personal and biographical in a form whose formal shapelessness can be read as part of its meaning. She has much to contribute to a discussion on women writers and the form of the novel in transition from the modern to the postmodern in Turkey and abroad.

Since Tezer Özlü was so involved in translating German literature, and also writing in German, I wonder if she represents something significant in terms of the intellectual history between Germany and Turkey?


There are cultural relationships between Turkey and Germany preceding the First World War. During the early years of the republic many students were sent to Germany on government scholarships for technical knowledge, but also for the humanities. The novelist Sabahattin Ali was one of these students, and in 1943 he wrote his novel Kürk Mantolu Madonna (Madonna in a Fur Coat) inspired by his own experiences in Germany.


Another important exchange student was Ismail Hakkı Tonguç, one of the architects of the Village Institutes which had the mission of educating village children to have them serve as teachers of a well-rounded curriculum that taught technical knowledge rounded up by the arts and self-sufficiency. The novelist Sevgi Sosyal’s father was one of the engineering students who married a German woman and brought her to Turkey. Sevgi Soysal talks about the expat German community in Ankara her family was part of. Sevgi Soysal’s novel Tante Rosa Is based on the unusual character of her German aunt.

Turkey opened its doors to Jewish professors fleeing Nazi Germany at the beginning of the Second World War. These professors taught at Istanbul and Ankara Universities. That’s another important period of cultural exchange and transfer.

Tezer Özlü worked as a translator of German and Turkish in the business world, but also translating literary works. She went to Germany on a German DAAD fellowship in 1980 and then moved to Zurich with her third husband Hans Peter Marti in 1984, which in retrospect, were the last few years of her life; she died in 1986. She tried to introduce and promote Turkish writers in her writing and on her radio programs while in Europe. She was a lifelong translator of Kafka and other German writers. She wrote her second novel Journey to the End of Life in German originally. Her older sister Sezer translated a whole roster of canonical German writers into Turkish.

There is no easy answer to your question. As you can see there’s evidence of interactions through every period since the beginning of the republic but there is no genealogical record of these interactions and of whether they left a residue to build on. It’s difficult to say if there’s a cultural memory left of these contacts in the local communities in which they were formed or if people of each period, if every expat community started anew from scratch.

Do you call Journey to the End of Life a novel?


I do because Tezer Özlü does. It’s an experiment in the form and content of the novel. There have been similar questions and discussions about the form and content, for example, of Leyla Erbil’s A Strange Woman, Ferit Edgü’s He, the source material of his screenplay for A Season in Hakkari, and Latife Tekin’s Berci Kristin: Tales from the Garbage. Some discussion of whether these are proper novels goes on, but now we accept them as novels.

We can call Journey to the End of Life, a metaphysical novel about the meaning of life and death, or a meta-novel that engages with the works of Tezer Özlü’s most favorite three writers: Kafka, Pavese and Svevo while trying to travel to their cities and visit their homes. As in her first novel, in Journey to the End of Life a literal journey embeds a search for meaning which can only be grasped through encounters with death and its acceptance as part of daily life.


I ask because I wonder why she would have been translated into German and French but not into English until now?


Historically there has been a lot more interest in Turkish literature in Europe, but the way it works in is this: someone falls in love with a text and tries to get it translated as a passion project. There’s no systematic program of translation. Getting Tezer Özlü translated into English was my student Dilara Alemdar’s mission because she loves Tezer Özlü.


Are there comparable contemporary, living writers?


Aslı Erdoğan comes to mind in Turkish literature, for example, with The City in Crimson Cloak, which takes place in Brazil. A Turkish physics graduate student goes to Rio to do a Ph.D., but is trapped in her house, and is completely alienated from the rest of the world. She only hears the disembodied voice of her mother who calls frequently to say she’ll be traveling to Russia. She finally goes out only to be murdered in a favela. The novel presents a conundrum because we have to grapple with the fact that if she’s dead, who is the “I” narrating the rest of her story.


This novel reminds me of Tezer Özlü’s works because it also tells of an inner metaphysical journey by a character in search of her life’s meaning and the journey has to cross death, has to go into the Underworld to get to its end. The novel starts with an epigraph from Celan: “YOU were my death/You I could hold/When all fell away from me.” Like Tezer Özlü’s works, it is narrated in a lyrical inner voice, but it is a lot more difficult to decipher what actually happens in this novel, which is not the case in Tezer Özlü’s narratives.


How does Tezer Özlü fit into your coursework over the years, considering the other writers your students would mostly focus on?


Tezer Özlü would fit into various reading lists: one, for example, of Turkish women writers that may start from Halide Edib and end with Latife Tekin and Aslı Erdoğan. We can include her in the study of the Turkish Buildingsroman or in a class on experiments in the form of the novel in comparison with the novels of Bilge Karasu and Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar or in course on the “depression novel” whose protagonist is usually male as in Oğuz Atay’s Tutunamayanlar. The reading list of Turkish authors in the U.S. is a limited one, which translation only partially expands.

However, there’s a lag between between what people actually read and what is studied academically even in Turkey. Tezer Özlü is beloved by readers. The copy I have of Cold Nights of Childhood is from the 21st printing of its Yapı Kredi publication, but she hasn’t yet established a strong foothold in Turkish academia, either. However, the upside is that it usually takes one dissertation before an author is embraced as an academic subject of study. Exhibit A for this is the case of Ahmed Hamdi Tanpınar, who is currently a subject of serious study in both the U.S. and Turkey.

Do you think of the quality of Tezer Özlü’s writing as on par with the greatest Turkish writers, in terms of craft?


Yes. Her writing is deceptively clear. Her friend Leyla Erbil says she has the gift of seeming accessible, and dispensing with the distance between the reader and writer. Yet, despite honestly laying out everything in her life, she also holds back some details so that the explanation- not- given tugs at your heart and the mystery not completely grasped, keeps you thinking about what she means. She uses the tropes of light and darkness; of coldness and warmth as road signs of growth toward self-consciousness. She skillfully weaves scenes of nature and scenes from the city as contrasting pieces of a puzzle. These are experienced in different coordinates of linear time, but in her narrative, they become co-existent and contemporary, representing a growing consciousness that encompasses all times as co-terminus and as parts of each other.